Garza Leads Council Into Magistration Fray
Providing both defense and prosecution counsel at magistration 24/7 would cost $4.1 million annually, says Travis County
Despite ruffled feathers on the virtual dais, and between City Hall and the county courthouse, Council at last week's meeting (April 9) agreed with Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza's effort to raise the reform bar for magistration – the crucial moment under Texas law at which it's decided whether cause exists for arrestees to be jailed, and on what terms they can be released.
Austin municipal judges handle magistration for all of Travis County (about 70% of arrests here are made by Austin police). Garza, who says her service on the Council's Judicial Committee prompted her run for county attorney (a race to be decided in a July 14 run-off), told colleagues her resolution "is just another example of our [justice] advocates coming to the city to express things that are important."
What's most important, in the language of the resolution, is "(1) a decrease in the number of people detained prior to trial; (2) a decrease in racial disparities in the jail population; and (3) a reduction in the amount of time people spend in jail prior to their release pretrial." Thus Garza asked Council to affirm as city policy that arrestees "should" have hearings with counsel (and interpreters as needed) before magistrates, and that ability to pay should be considered before bail is set, among other things.
That "should" matters; Garza told the Chronicle "much of [the resolution] is aspirational" and compared it to Council's biennial legislative agenda. She agreed that Austin and Travis County have made great strides in reducing the jail population – a mandate with more urgency amid fears of COVID-19 contagion – but said "It doesn't hurt us to try to do better." Now is the time to act, she added, not for campaign reasons, but because the interlocal agreement between city and county to operate Central Booking is up for renewal – a fact, Garza says, she and her committee learned by chance, not from city staff.
Though Garza may have thought she came in peace, those working to lower the jail census now – prosecutors, judges, and staff, and implicitly the Travis County Commissioners Court – let their exasperation be known. "It is unfortunate that various County stakeholders were not consulted before this proposed resolution was developed," wrote Roger Jefferies, the county executive for justice planning, in a memo to commissioners that was shared with Council. "[T]he resolution does not account for work already being done to reduce incarceration. In fact, Travis County is and has been a leader in the state in justice reform." (He added that providing both defense and prosecution counsel at magistration 24/7 would cost $4.1 million a year.)
This debate is now familiar from this year's election contests. One side (mostly the incumbents) points to Austin's progressive justice bona fides, as far back as the early days of the late Ronnie Earle and as recently as this week. (At Council, this side was championed by Leslie Pool, who abstained from the 10-0-1 vote.) The other side notes that not all but many of the 1,600-plus still in county custody are presumed innocent and pose no threat. Many are poor, and all will get poorer while locked up, including disparately high numbers of Black men and women.
The county says it's become its norm for people in such circumstances to get personal bonds, but Garza's side feels the number who don't, and are instead jailed, should be approaching zero and would be if arrestees' rights were diligently respected. That wasn't happening in Harris County, said a federal judge in 2018, and higher courts may decide Garza's prescriptions aren't "aspirational" after all. Past precedents have confounded left-right legal alliances; back in 2008, the Supreme Court ruled Texas arrestees were entitled to counsel beginning at magistration, rather than later, with only Clarence Thomas in dissent.